The fire burned hot, bright and fast on Twitter yesterday when the news broke of the film Academy’s latest attempt to tighten up the Oscars telecast and lure viewers back to their TV sets. With 8 out of 23 awards being handed out in an untelevised pre-ceremony and then edited into the broadcast portion, the message – whether intended or not – is clear: there is a hierarchy of awards categories that “matter.”
There are a lot of assumptions in this move, both from the Oscar producers and Academy leadership who made the decision, and from the fans who are reacting to it. Assumptions about why people aren’t watching and what they want. Assumptions about this move and the likely reasons for it. What we do know is that the powers that be (both the network and the leaders within the Academy) are concerned with declining viewership and have been for years, as evidenced, most recently, with this year’s social media hashtag categories, #OscarsCheerMoment and #OscarsFanFavorite, which appears to be a new version of the nixed Popular Film category from a few years ago.
But that move has been interpreted by Oscar fans as tone deaf and misguided. In an effort to draw more viewers and increase engagement, the Academy has decided to prioritize tweets over moments. Which is to say, the winners of the hashtag games will be gifted with televised attention over the spontaneous, poignant, and history-making moments the emerge during an emotional live broadcast.
From the outside, it’s easy to blame ABC for demanding a tighter schedule and higher ratings. The network has been the home of the Academy Awards since 1976, when Hollywood’s biggest night typically drew an audience of around 40 million. That number fluctuated some from one year to the next, hitting an all-time high off 56 million the night Titanic won in 1998. But in those days, there were far fewer channels to choose from and hardly any other network dared bother with counterprogramming, knowing the vast majority of televisions were tuned to the Oscars. Many of us who cover the awards long ago accepted that the big numbers are gone, and there is a sense that ABC and AMPAS are chasing ratings that will simply never happen again, no matter what they do.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue. In his letter to the membership yesterday, AMPAS President David Rubin said:
We realize these kinds of changes can prompt concern about equity, and we ask you to understand our goal has been to find a balance in which nominees, winners, members, and viewing audience all have a rewarding show experience. Moving forward we will assess this change and will continue to look for additional ways to make our show more entertaining and more thrilling for all involved, inside the Dolby Theatre and watching from home.
Through this statement, the Academy president acknowledges the focus is now entirely on the show experience, not on the awards themselves. Which is why the awards chosen for the televised hours will celebrate the big stars and the biggest prizes. But in both the short term and the long term, these decisions have unintended consequences. Think of the decision years ago to move the honorary awards to a separate, private ceremony. Imagine how many people would tune in this year to watch Samuel L. Jackson give a memeable, bleep-filled acceptance speech to a captivated crowd.
By focusing on crafting a particular kind of show, the producers are sacrificing the moments that make the Oscars the event that they are. In an era where people watch things in clips and segments, it’s time for the Academy (and ABC if they’re going to continue to host the ceremony) to celebrate the magic of the movies while also embracing the times that we are in. And there are a few ways they can do this.
1. Turn the Oscars into an event again.
As Variety’s Clayton Davis recently wrote, “It seems long overdue for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to start treating the Oscars as the Super Bowl of movies.”
Look at how many people watch the Super Bowl even when their team isn’t in it. Even if they don’t like football. There is a strong sense of FOMO attached to the Super Bowl. We don’t want to miss the commercials. We don’t want to miss the Half Time Show. The National Anthem is a big part of the festivities, and we can’t wait for the replays of those big hits and touchdowns.
Celebrate the movies. All the movies. And the people who make them. They can do this by telling the stories, recapping the season, and reminding people of the magic that keeps them coming back. Partner with AMC and Regal and Cinemark to host viewing parties at the theaters. Unlike the Super Bowl, regular folks can’t just buy tickets to the big game at the Dolby Theater, but they *could* nab tickets for smaller venues and feel like they’re part of the action.
2. Nomination Prime Time Special
Some of us have been saying this for years and we’ll keep saying it until it happens. Kick off the run up to the Academy Awards by announcing the nominations in prime time. Enough with this 5am, hit the morning news cycle, wake up the talent with early morning phone calls silliness. Advertise it in advance. Shout from the rooftops that this is coming.
Have multiple participants announce the categories from within the various wings of the Academy museum, surrounded by decades of film history. Explain what the categories are, include your live (curated) Twitter reactions from viewers, and immediately follow up with a Prime Time GMA-type reaction show where some of the newly minted nominees can cry and celebrate and enjoy the moment. Because it really IS an honor just to be nominated, and those nominations need to be treated like the big deal that they are.
3. Tell the Stories of the Nominees
Related to the previous point, let’s do more to celebrate the nominees. Their publicists are doing a fantastic job getting them into interviews with the various publications around the world. But the Academy could do a lot of good if they took some time to really celebrate their nominees. Similar to the introduction packages we get for the Olympics, let’s see a 5 minute video of THIRTEEN TIME NOMINEE Diane Warren in her studio, crafting memorable music. Take us on location with Ari Wegner and Greig Fraser as they craft perfect shots and talk a little bit about why they love cinematography. Let us meet Jenny Beavan and Luis Seguira and Germaine Franco and Hank Corwin.
When people know the stories behind their favorite movies, and they can see the real people who make them, that gives them something specific to root for and more reasons to tune in. Run these segments on the network. Create playlists on YouTube. Showcase them in theaters ahead of the trailers.
4. Do not underestimate the value of Education
When I was in high school, the LA Times ran an ad that played ahead of just about every movie I saw in a theater for years. It showed the way Foley Artists create the soundscapes for movies. Everything from the sound of a dinosaur to the clicking of a dog’s paws on concrete. It was fascinating, and made me think that if I were ever to go into filmmaking, that was the work I would love to do. Obviously, I didn’t, but as a result, I have always been in love with the art and the craft of making movies.
AMPAS has poured millions of dollars and many years into a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to celebrating the entire history of filmmaking, even from the days before there was an Academy. You can see the evolution of makeup, get an up close view of incredible costumes, watch exhibitions of the short films, and look at scripts and musical scores from iconic movies. Creating featurettes that explain the history of each awards category can go a long way to getting people excited about them.
Instead of treating the literal movie-making parts of movie-making like an afterthought that doesn’t need the spotlight, show people why film editing is so damn cool. If people understand what the awards are there to celebrate, they’ll be a lot more excited about why the visual effects spectacle that is Dune also garnered a nomination for Makeup and Hairstyling, or how Belfast and The Power of the Dog managed to wow the Sound branch alongside more obvious choices like No Time to Die.
5. Stop Stressing Out About the Run Time
Yes, of course, it’s a lot of work and stress to put on a show that will be watched by millions, and an event that runs four hours is a LOT. But who turns off the Super Bowl with two minutes left in the game? Only the people who don’t really care about it anyway. It’s not like ABC has anything else scheduled to air after the Oscars. On the East Coast, it’s late and they’re headed into the local news. On the west coast, they jump into post-game reactions for an hour or two. Sure, start it earlier so that New Yorkers don’t have to stay up past midnight to see who won Best Picture.
But the point is, even when the ceremony is running long, very few people are going to turn it off before the big prizes at the end of the night. Have fun, make it fun, allow some room for unexpected moments, and just let it be.
Making these moves will go a long way to living up to this year’s Oscars theme: